By JAMES VAZNIS, BOSTON GLOBE
(Published July 21, 2019)–Nearly a third of high school students with disabilities in Greater Boston have experienced cyberbullying over the past year, despite efforts by the state and local districts to curb that kind of harassment, according to an analysis of health survey results by a local foundation.
The online bullying can have profound impacts, with more than a third of those victims reporting they had suicidal tendencies due to the harassment they encountered on social media, according to the analysis by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston nonprofit that works on behalf of people with disabilities.
“Cyberbullying can have devastating psychological impacts that can change people’s lives,” said Jay Ruderman, the foundation’s president.
The Ruderman foundation examined results from health surveys that were completed by 24,000 students at 26 high schools in the suburbs west of Boston three years ago. That survey was funded by a separate group, the MetroWest Health Foundation. Cross-referencing those results with another state-sponsored survey, the Ruderman foundation estimated that about 4,200 students had disabilities.
The analysis shines a rare spotlight on the frequency and impact of cyberbullying on students with disabilities. Often when cyberbullying is addressed in schools or campaigns are launched to crack down on it, the focus is on victims in a broad sense rather than zeroing in on a specific population of students who are disproportionately targeted.
Yet students with disabilities — aside from being victimized at higher rates — are also at greater risk of experiencing extreme emotional reactions to the attacks because many of them may be grappling with loneliness, depression, or lack the cognitive ability to cope with taunting, disability advocates say.
That, in some cases, can cause students with disabilities to lash out and morph into bullies, without even realizing they have crossed a line.
But discontinuing social media use would be a mistake, according to the analysis, because those platforms can provide venues for students with disabilities to make new friends or find an empathetic audience to praise their accomplishments or support them during hardship.
In fact, students with disabilities were more likely to report on the surveys that they had received support on social media than their peers without disabilities, 38 percent compared to 28 percent.
The challenge of helping students navigate the world of social media is two-pronged: finding ways “to perpetuate this online kindness and eradicate online bullying,” said Miriam Heyman, a coauthor of the report that was released earlier this month.
“We are not advocating to eliminate or reduce social media,” said Heyman, who oversees disability programs at the Ruderman foundation.
The report offers parents strategies to help their children avoid cyberbullying, such as talking to them about what to do if they or others they know experience online harassment; encouraging them to interact only with people they know and trust; urging them to act kindly toward others on social media; and monitoring their social media usage regularly.
Students with disabilities tended to use social media at similar rates as their other peers, the analysis found, with slightly more than half of both groups indicating they used those platforms for two or more hours a day.
Alix Herer, 22, who has a nonverbal learning disability that makes it difficult for her to process language and pick up on social cues, said she knows firsthand the kind of trauma that cyberbullying can inflict on students with special needs. When Herer was in the sixth grade at a private school in Newton, she said a classmate harassed her and threatened her life online.
“I was scared to go to school because I thought something bad would happen to me,” said Herer, who in spite of her disability did well academically in class. “I was faking sick to not go to school, crying, screaming, throwing things. . . . I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
The school responded quickly, holding meetings with her family and the perpetrator, who was disciplined, she recalled. But the incident was so traumatizing that her family transferred her to another school. Fear about being cyberbullied again still haunts her, she said.
“It makes me not want to have social media,” she said,
Herer’s messages to cyberbullying victims: “Know you are not alone” and “Talk to an adult about it.” She too will be in a situation to help; she recently took a job at Boston University where she will help students with disabilities cope with anxiety and depression.
Students with disabilities make up 18 percent of the 952,000 students enrolled in public schools statewide, and a state bullying-prevention law recognizes that certain student populations, such as those with disabilities, are more vulnerable to all acts of harassment, including online. The law requires schools to take specific actions when students are bullied because of their disability.
For instance, if students who struggle with social interactions due to a disability are victimized by their classmates online, schools may have to create strategies to help them improve their social skills, including in online situations, and take actions against the bullies.
Similarly, if students with disabilities are bullying other students, then schools need to work with them to prevent those kinds of situations.
Pam Nourse, executive director for the Federation for Children With Special Needs, said more needs to be done to protect students with disabilities when they tap into social media.
“Social media can be a positive force that can open up their world to new connections, but it can also have the effect of making children who are vulnerable even more vulnerable,” she said. “Often, students with disabilities know they are different from their peers and are already experiencing low self esteem.”